When Balfour Beatty’s Aislinn Smith, project manager, changed her major from city planning to building construction at Virginia Tech, she didn’t think twice about working in a male-dominated industry. It wasn’t just that construction was becoming more inclusive when Smith graduated in 2011. As decisive as she is driven, once Smith establishes a goal, she simply refuses to accept any barriers to achieving it. Smith is based in Charlotte.
Before donning her cap and gown, the Charlotte native was already building an enviable resume. During an internship with RT Dooley Construction, a family-owned general contractor Balfour Beatty acquired in 2009, Smith worked on one of the most signature buildings punctuating her hometown skyline, the Duke Energy Center. During another internship, Smith made her mark on the nation’s capital, helping renovate the Pentagon.
It came as little surprise to those who knew Smith that she graduated with the honor of “Most Exemplary Senior” in her building construction department. But Smith was only just beginning to crack the glass ceiling. After graduation, she joined another national general contractor. Her first project, a federal prison in West Virginia, was hardly a softball for the 22-year-old. Smith relocated to an unfamiliar state and was the only woman out of a nearly 30-member project team. In what would become a recurring theme of Smith’s career, where others see obstacles, she seizes opportunities. Smith describes her relationship with the project’s superintendent, a 6’4,” Paul Bunyan-esque, tower crane of a man, “He toughened me up, and I softened him.”
Though Smith enjoyed her tenure in the Mid-Atlantic, she never forgot her roots and joined Balfour Beatty’s Charlotte team in 2015. “It felt like coming home,” she recalls. Smith’s first project with the company, a challenging multi-family housing development, would have tested even the most seasoned construction professional. It was a baptism of fire of sorts for Smith, then a 27-year-old assistant project manager. But she wasn’t second-in-command on-site for long. When the project manager departed the company, senior leadership entrusted the job to Smith, confident in her ability to deliver. Predictably, she did not disappoint.
“You have to find ways to get a job done under pressure,” maintains Smith. “Often, you don’t have the liberty of taking three days to make a decision. You have to make the best call for your client and trade partners and be willing to stand behind it.” As she looks back, Smith realizes these lessons are equally applicable to projects that run smoothly or those that encounter any number of the industry’s common obstacles.
Today, at 31 years young, Smith is a project manager with nearly three million square feet of work credited to her name. She was recently named to Charlotte Agenda’s 30 under 30 Class of 2018. A relentlessly positive, calm under pressure, consummate team player, her glass is always half full.
She’s spent the last several years managing a $14 million renovation to the Reynolds American, Inc. headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., and in March 2019, transitioned to oversee a $30 million K-8 STEAM facility for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Despite a demanding career that requires many early morning jobsite visits and late-night emails, Smith dedicates time to serving others through initiatives like the ACE Mentor Program. This past December, she led a project like no other—building a footbridge over a canyon in Bolivia’s Cochabamba River Valley. In partnership with Bridges to Prosperity, Balfour Beatty assembled a diverse team of construction experts to provide Bolivians a safer and faster route to access food, healthcare and other basic necessities. Smith and the entire Balfour Beatty team stepped out of their comfort zones, living in sparse conditions without hot water and sleeping on cots in the same small, uninsulated room.
“Leadership is hard to teach and a lot has to do with experiences and how a person can take those experiences and translate them into success,” says Jeff Sandeen, vice president and business unit leader in Charlotte. “I have witnessed Aislinn become a humble yet driven leader, and that is reflected in her daily operations as well as her community involvement.”
In many ways, Smith is fulfilling her destiny. Her father, who works for CBRE, often took his children around Charlotte, pointing out buildings he’d helped bring to life. Today, Smith can take the same personal pride in the Queen City, knowing she’s building foundations in more ways than one.
“I never want to be so comfortable that I’m not challenging myself. If I’m not aiming for something, then I’m settling,” affirms Smith with a wisdom that surpasses her age.
Ability, ambition, adventure. Aislinn Smith is proving the future of construction belongs to anyone who devotes herself or himself to building it.
This article previously appeared in Building with Purpose, a newsletter published by Balfour Beatty featuring news from the Carolinas. Balfour Beatty U.S. has three offices in the Carolinas — Charlotte, Raleigh and Charleston. For more information, visit https://www.balfourbeattyus.com/local-teams/charlotte.